In these celebrity-driven days fantasy can become reality, talent can become secondary to appearance and the most twisted perspective can be taken for authenticity. All of that is made clear in the jaw-dropping documentary “Author: The J.T. Leroy Story.”
In the late ’90s and early aughts, J.T. Leroy was something of a literary sensation, an androgynous former truck stop prostitute with AIDS who wrote desperate prose about the darker side of life. Celebrities — Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan — flocked to him, the literati adored him, his books were big both here and in Europe.
Only one problem: J.T. Leroy was the invention of an obese 40-year-old housewife in San Francisco named Laura Albert who once worked as a phone sex operator. Driven by an abusive childhood — which the film slowly but surely reveals — Albert had taken to calling suicide hotlines while pretending to be other people in distress.
Eventually one of her distressed characters begins writing down his story, and that leads to the invention of J.T. Leroy. When J.T. Leroy’s books become a hit, Albert has to make the author out to be reclusive, since he doesn’t exist. But one day she looks over at her sister-in-law, a lithe, short-haired blonde named Savannah Knoop, and realizes she could pass as a young gay guy.
Thus is J.T. Leroy made flesh. Soon J.T. is giving interviews, flying to Europe, even somehow having affairs. And Albert is accompanying her in another guise, as a British assistant named Speedie. From there things get crazier.
Writer-director Jeff Feuerzeig is assisted by both filmed footage — everybody wanted to put a camera in J.T. Leroy’s face — and Albert’s apparent habit of keeping tapes of phone conversations, as well as photos and footage from her youth.
But even amidst the celeb circus, Feuerzeig keeps his focus on Albert herself, on the circumstances and insecurities that make her into an interesting character — far more interesting, even, than J.T. Leroy.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Author: The J.T. Leroy Story’
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images
Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor
Also showing at the Main Art Theatre, Royal Oak
Running time: 110 minutes